September 27, 2023 1:29 pm

Ardgowan Distillery: Whisky Plans For The Future

Long before there was this column or the Whiskey Network or the phrase “first female” [insert noun] became commonplace in media, there were simply women that worked in the whisky industry and women that enjoyed its products. Generally, the former were also the latter, but not always. 

And since like-minded people tend to eventually find one another, I’m pleased to share that it was through another whiskey swigging woman that I was fortunate enough to be introduced personally to Lisa Matthews (Distiller) and Nicola Campbell (Production Manager) of Ardgowan Distillery. If you happen to live in NYC, you can thank “E” for being one half of two whiskey nerds that power, the most complete listing of whiskey events in New York City.

Biscuit Bites, Big Cities

In early January, two Scottish Chambers of Commerce – Forth Valley Chamber of Commerce (FVCC) and Inverclyde Chamber of Commerce (ICC) – announced that a trade delegation of small to medium sized businesses would travel to Miami and New York as part of the first trade mission from Scotland to the United States since the start of the pandemic. Businesses in the industries of life sciences, finance, and food and drink were invited to apply and Ardgowan was chosen. 

Their visit to New York City coincided with NYC Tartan Week, an annual event celebrating Scottish heritage and culture that includes the Tartan Day Parade. I was fortunate enough to be part of a tasting hosted for a small group at Fine and Rare (a spirits and jazz restaurant). We tasted their Coppersmith Expression paired with Scottish Drinks Biscuits from the Drinks Bakery, another Scottish company that was part of the trade delegation. 

While we enjoyed sips and stories that evening, Lisa and Nicola were kind enough to make time to chat with me upon their return to Scotland the following week while their internal clocks were still on Eastern Standard Time.

Island Girls

While they both have roots in Islay neither one of them expected to be working for a Scotch Whisky Distillery. 

Nicola’s great-grandad, grandad, and dad all worked in a whisky distillery and her mom worked at a bank. However, as she pointed out, whisky production on Islay impacts all other industries on the island and by extension all of its residents. Like other teens growing up in a small, rural area, Nicola wanted to get away and venture out into the world. At the time, she was passionate about fashion. It surprised her family, comprised of an engineer (dad), a scientist (younger brother), and an accountant (mom). 

Yet each time she worked for a Scottish fashion company, they would grow and then move to London. Although she had wanted to leave Islay, Nicola had no desire to live so far away from family. So, she went back to her career drawing board; she knew she wanted to work at a Scottish company that had a luxury product and was focused on sustainability – so whisky it was! And at her first official whisky job, she knew that this was the industry mean for her. 

Nicola’s first whisky job was as a personal assistant at Hunter Laing, an independent blender and bottler that had been founded in the late 1940s and focused on Scotch Malt Whisky and Single Malt Scotches before it became popular. Working closely for a Managing Director, Nicola was able to learn about the business side and then production as they were in the midst of planning and building Ardnahoe, the first new whisky distillery on Islay in almost 15 years.

After deciding that her career would be in whisky, Nicola made certain to get the licenses, certifications and real-world training in different areas and ended up in her current role as Production Manager for Ardgowan. 

While Lisa’s family on her mother’s side is from Islay, she was born in the southside of Glasgow, where her father’s family hailed. When she was seven, the family moved to the capital of Islay, Bowmore, right around the corner from the Bowmore Distillery. As a teen, Lisa spent summers as a tour guide for Bruichladdich Distillery.  Part of her training included a “Day in the Life of…” different roles at the distillery such as distilling, mashing, bottling, etc. But it still never occurred to her that she would end up in the production of whisky. 

At nineteen, Lisa escaped “Island life” back to Glasgow then Dundee where she went to pursue a forensic science course. She ended up working part-time at Eden Mill in St. Andrews; today it is a scotch whisky distillery but it was a brewery when she worked there. There she learned about craft beer and craft gin.

This influenced her to list an interest in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt behind immunology and pharmacology. In her second year, she was the only woman in her year. 

Lisa stated that even though she was the “only woman at uni”, she never felt out of place because her own professors were women: Dr. Dawn Maskell and Dr. Annie Hill. Besides educating students in their respective areas of microbiology, she felt that their representation on staff at the program ended up serving two important purposes: 1) inspiring her to helping to make her feel comfortable amidst the men so that she wouldn’t question why she was there and 2) normalizing to the men that women not only belong in brewing and distilling but can teach others looking to go down that path. 

Lisa ended up at Harviestoun Brewery where she went from the woman that started her career not knowing what the difference was between a lager and IPA to the youngest female brewer in Scotland.  She released a new session IPA named ‘Heaven Cent’, in homage to the “centennial” hop used to make it. 

After Harviestoun, Lisa was recruited back to Stirling Distillery as their Head Distiller where she released the Gin Blue Line, a product created with the goal of donating a percentage of proceeds towards police mental health charities. This was created in recognition of British police officers suffering from PTSD. (Stirling Distillery co-founder, Cameron McCann is a retired Met police officer.)

Then Lisa got a call from Nicola (whom she knew from school) about a brand-new distillery looking for a distiller and upon learning about their plans, she decided to join their team and as she states, “the rest is history.” 

The Distillery

Speaking of history, while the Ardgowan Distillery has yet to open, the original Ardgowan Distillery was a whisky blending company destroyed in the Nazi Germany bombing attack on the UK termed the “Blitz” from the German word Blitzkrieg that translates to “lightning war”. 

The original distillery plans were submitted in 2016 and approved in 2018 for it to be built on the Ardgowan Estate near Inverkip, west of Glasgow. Updated plans last December revealed a new design that features a modular distillery and visitor center that combines ergonomics and energy efficiency that allows adaptation to take advantage of emerging sustainable technologies. Low environment impact composite cladding, timber and steel are the heart of creating a visitor “sky platform” enclosed in glass that will give views of the river Clyde and serve as a viewing platform for the distillery inspired by long Nordic (Viking) banquet halls. Though construction has yet to begin, they have committed to being carbon negative by 2024. Recent updates also include plans to have a gin distilling plant built on the site. 

The Whisky

As they wait for construction to begin for their own distilling, Ardgowan has already released three products: Expedition and two for their Clydebuilt Series: Coppersmith and Shipwright. These premium blends are sourced from Speyside and Highland distilleries that are not disclosed but a quick chat about the backgrounds of certain ex-Edrington and ex-Diageo gives you an idea of the whisky sources. 

  • Ardgowan Expedition: Touted as “the whisky that went to the South Pole and back”, this 20-year-old premium blend is a combination of upper Speyside and Highland malts. It was created as a nod to the 2016 South Pole Energy Challenge that was designed to demonstrate one could travel and survive there without using Earth’s resources on the way. Ardgowan developed a zero-carbon snow melter that produced drinking water from snow and in return explorer Robert Swan took aged whiskey with him. 
  • Clydebuilt Series: A series created and named in honor of the shipbuilding industry on the River Clyde that includes the Queen Mary and the Lusitania. Production for the first release, Coppersmith has already ceased

The sourced whiskies have been aged in first fill sherry Oloroso barrels and Lisa has stated that this flavor profile is in alignment with the portfolio they are planning to build.

Whisky Plans for the Future

Nicola and Lisa are excited to be part of a project that they state will reinvigorate the Inverclyde area, which had been rated the “most deprived” area in Scotland by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), lacking resources and opportunities for its residents. The project is estimated to create 47 jobs over the next 5 years and is also looking to increase tourism through its visitor center. 

Meanwhile, as they both continue to be involved in daily operations, the making and release of blended malts and ultra-limited special releases, Nicola and Lisa will continue to advocate for Ardgowan on trade missions. 

When asked when they think the Distillery may open, they responded that 2023 is just around the corner. 

It was a pleasure to meet Nicola and Lisa, taste their Coppersmith Whisky, and learn about the plans for the Ardgowan Distillery. Visit to keep up to date on their opening! 

Slàinte Mhath!

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."

George Bernard Shaw

“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”

James Joyce

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